Question: What is meant by this verse: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…?”
The verse itself is found in 1 Corinthians 11:14. It is one of those verses that from time to time (depending on the culture and generation) has been used to prove that the Bible teaches men are not to wear their hair long.
There are several problems with using this passage as a proof text for such teaching. First, the verse itself does not teach that men are not to wear long hair; it simply asks a rhetorical question. And before any teaching can be derived from the question, the meaning of Paul’s question must be understood.
Second, the biblical context of verse 14 is all about public worship. Whatever Paul means by the question, the answer is in the context of worship. Not only so, but there is also a cultural context behind both the question and the answer. One reason this verse is often so unclear to readers of our day is that we don’t live in the cultural setting that Paul and his initial readers were familiar with. Remember this axiom of biblical interpretation: ‘A text without a context is a pretext.’
Corinth in the first century AD was thoroughly steeped in the Greek-Roman culture, and the Christian church there was made up primarily of Gentiles out of that culture. One of the peculiarities of life in the Roman Empire was that non-Jewish men typically wore short, carefully groomed hair and were clean-shaven. This was to separate themselves from those who were called “barbarians”—the poor and those who lived closer to nature, where the men among them generally let their hair and beards grow out with little concern for style.
Now picture a room full of people gathered for worship where men and women alike wore long robes. A clean-shaven man with long hair could easily be mistaken for a woman, which any self-respecting person of that culture would consider “disgraceful.”
So when Paul writes, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…?”—he (as a bearded Jewish Christian with long, curly sideburns) was appealing to the cultural sensitivities of his clean-shaven, short-haired Christian brothers from the Romanized world. Paul was encouraging them to avoid looking feminine.
If long hair on men were a biblical taboo we would expect to find specific scriptural teaching to that effect. But, in fact, this is the only verse in the Bible that says anything about it, and even that is in the form of a question. The lesson to learn from this is not the length of one’s hair but avoiding appearances in general that would confuse the genders, and thereby do a disservice to God who made us male and female for His glory:
Gen. 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.